GCSE results day 2014: Michael Gove's reforms mean schools need to prepare for a shock, expert claims


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The Independent Online

Many schools - especially in disadvantaged areas - will face a “sharp shock” when they get their GCSE results tomorrow, a leading exam expert has warned.

They will see their results drop as former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s reforms to the examination system target schools who have been “gaming” the system, according to Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckinghamshire University.

The shake-up of GCSE exams is likely to increase the gap in performance between schools in rich and poor communities. However, because of the range of changes to this year’s exams, including some schools benefiting from end-of-course exams and a huge drop in early entrants, many of whom got low grade passes, the overall results could even show a slight improvement, he added.

Professor Smithers told The Independent that the schools most likely to suffer would be those serving disadvantaged areas struggling to meet minimum targets set by the Government for GCSE passes.

In the past, the schools would have been able to put pupils in for multiple resits of their English and maths exams in the hope of pushing them towards a C grade pass, which would have boosted the school’s position in exam league tables.

Now, though, this practice has been outlawed with only the first sitting of a subject counting towards the league tables.

In addition, Professor Smithers argued, coursework has in the past helped motivate struggling pupils by letting them see what they have achieved during the course. Now, however, there is more focus on the end-of-course exam.

“If you’re a school in the middle of a council estate where some of the pupils don’t want to be there, you have to think of things that will encourage them to help you meet the minimum requirement,” he added. “If you can do that by giving them practice at the exam and giving them a lot of help to succeed, you will do that.”

At present, the floor target for schools is that 40 per cent of pupils should get five A* to C grade passes including maths and English, while a certain percentage of pupils (last year 73 per cent) have to make an expected level of progress in English and maths since entering secondary school. For instance, a pupil who arrived with a level five in their national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds would be expected to get a B grade pass.

If a school fails to reach the minimum target, then the head’s job is likely to be put in jeopardy and it could be forced to become an academy with a private sponsor appointed to run it.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, said: “No doubt some commentators will be rushing to applaud the reintroduction of ‘rigour’ into the GCSE qualification. The reality is that the Coalition Government’s interference with, and calculated denigration of the GCSE qualification has caused uncertainty and anxiety.”

Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, added: “We believe that scrapping coursework as a component of final grades so that everything hangs on how students perform in two-hour end-of-course exams disadvantages those who build skills and knowledge consistently over the course.”

Despite the prospect of some schools seeing their results fall, others could do well out of the reforms so a slight rise in the pass rate is not out of the question when the 600,000 teenagers taking GCSEs get their results today.

The switch to end-of-course exams is said to favour boys at the expense of girls, for instance, while the huge drop in the numbers taking their exams early - down from 843,000 to 504,000 - could weed out some pupils who never quite managed to obtain a C grade pass.

Ofqual, the exams regulator, has warned schools to expect more “volativity” in the exam results this year.

“Overall the results could be up, down or remain about the same,” said Professor Smithers. “Individual schools are likely to be affected differently according to how much they relied on gaming the old system so for some there could be sharp shocks in store.”

What's different this year?

There are a range of changes affecting this year’s exam results,

The most obvious is the decision that only a candidate’s first sitting of a subject will count towards the Government’s league tables. It has seen the number of early entrants plummet from 843,000 to 504,000 this year. The change is likely to hit the results of schools who believed the best way to obtain a C grade was by borderline C/D grade students having several bites of the cherry. Conversely, some pupils may do better by having a further year’s study before sitting their exam

The shift from coursework to end-of-course testing is thought likely to benefit boys than girls, who are said to be more methodical in their approach to learning, but affect those struggling to learn who, experts say, draw encouragement by seeing how they have done in modules along the way to the final exam.

In addition, in English, speaking and listening tests - considered again as an opportunity by some schools to boost struggling candidates’ grades - no longer count towards the final grade. Also, there has been a substantial drop in take-up of English and English language as candidates desert to the international GCSE following the marking controversy of two years ago which saw confidence levels in the GCSE drop.